History Of Surfing: Bob Simmons, The Gnarled Genius

The knobby misanthrope of surfboard design

The History Of Surfing page for Bob Simmons went live this week. Give it a read, if for no other reason than because the chapter starts by recounting how Simmons “once answered some bullying by a group of Palos Verdes Cove locals by splitting open the decks of their hollow boards with an ax.”

Simmons’s EOS entry covers the important, can’t-miss aspects of his life, from the early bicycle accident that left him with a crooked arm, to his relationship with angry sensei Gard Chapin, to his seminal binding of hydrodynamics and surfboard design, to his death on a stormy afternoon at Windansea in 1954. But Simmons’s HOS section really wades into the juicy nuance, not only of Simmons’s shaping, but also the truly backyard shaping scene of the ’40s and ’50s. We liked that stuff so much that we called Matt Warshaw and asked him more about postwar America’s intense, often inaccessible shaping culture.

Where have all the axe-swingers gone in Palos Verdes these days? All I see are drones.

If Simmons were alive, we’d be looking at drones with axes.

What was the apprenticeship between Gard Chapin and Simmons like?

Chapin was kind of a boardmaking mentor to young Simmons. Chapin – he was gnarly. Great surfer, probably the best plank-rider of his time, good sense of humor, fun to be around, but a heavy drinker with a violent temper. Chapin was married to Miki Dora’s mom, and Dora used to tell a story about how Gard woke up him in the middle of the night, when Miki was just a kid, and they drove to downtown Los Angeles. Gard parks the car, gets out, grabs a baseball bat from the trunk, and starts smashing the heads off a row of parking meters, which had just been installed. He was outraged that the city was going to charge people to park their cars. Other surfers were afraid of Gard. And then you have Simmons, like you say, axing those boards in PV. What a team! Amazing they didn’t kill each other.

“It was all over my head — and who gave a shit, anyway?” Dale Velzy said that of Simmons’s mathematical devotion in the shaping bay. But that seems like one of the subtly important lines in the larger surf culture – intuition vs. calculation.

Oh I’m so glad you picked that out. Absolutely one of my favorite lines in the book, and it sums up Dale Velzy in 12 words. It’s impossible to not love Velzy. And Simmons, while he did a lot of amazing, necessary design work, was off on a dead-end tangent in terms of how he chose to apply science to surfboards. Broadly speaking, though, Simmons was right. You want hard numbers. Always. Even if you’re doing something by feel, by intuition, the way Velzy did. If it works, you want the numbers all lined up and logged so you can repeat. Simmons boards didn’t work for most people. But Simmons’ reliance and belief in numbers is fundamental to getting us to computer shaping, which is the greatest boon to design work since — forever.

We sure ask a lot out of our shortboards, what we ask one board to be able to do.

And I think that’s where Simmons went into the long grass a bit. You can’t apply formulae when the field variables change as much as they do in surfing. It’s not like designing hulls for flat water. Surfboards aren’t boats. Simmons was right about nose lift, rail curve, foil. His boards went really fast. They worked great for Simmons, in fact. But most surfers wanted more from the ride than just speed. And fortunately, here comes Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin. But that’s for another day.

Was there a writing-on-the-wall moment for us—and for Simmons—when maneuverability overtook speed for our ideal on a board?

Les “Birdman” Williams borrowing Tommy Zahn’s girlfriend’s board at Malibu in ’49 or ‘50, this little balsa chip, and stamping three or four cutbacks on the same wave, one after the next.

What would you write as Simmons’s epitaph?

“Science is the antidote to the poison of enthusiasm.” Dale Velzy would hate that.

For more, visit the History Of Surfing website here.

[Title Photo: Simmons Board, 1951, Photo by John Elwell]